Wednesday, February 16, 2011

School Days

Hemingway once said that having survived his childhood, he had enough material to write for the rest of his life—a less-than-ringing endorsement of the teenage years. Yet unless you were the prom king or the class president, you probably agree with him.

High school was not easy for me, and this week I had the chance to revisit my teenage years. I was the guest speaker at my old high school, visiting a 10th-grade English class at the Salisbury School, a boys school in Connecticut. The students had read my story “Shooter” in the latest issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and several had read Jack Austin books as independent reading projects. I know one classroom of eager students does not a case study make, but I came away impressed.

The kids’ questions were informed, insightful, and intelligent—and, some of them, damned tough. I’m paraphrasing, but these offerings were particularly memorable:

What do you try to achieve with metaphors and similes?

I try to use them only to add clarity for the reader.

English teachers always seem to find symbols everywhere. As an English teacher, do you consciously put them in your fiction?


Does worldview of your protagonist represent your own views?


The morning was terrific. These are the kinds of questions every author likes to be asked when doing a Q@A. They illustrate how well the students understand the work (very flattering), and they demonstrate how closely the students read (an encouraging sign).

We are at a time when the publishing industry has little security to offer or, it seems, even a scratch outline for the future (Borders, after all, has just filed for bankruptcy). We are also at a time when it has never been more difficult to be a teen and when it seems that most teenagers possess the ability (and desire) to text while seemingly doing four things simultaneously (with the exception of reading). Therefore, it was encouraging to see firsthand how well some teens do read and to know how much some of them still love stories.

Consequently, as writers, we depend on this demographic much more than they know. As a young reader, I got the mystery bug in high school. About four sentences of Faulkner gave me a headache, and I fled like a refugee to the island of Travis McGee and Spenser. Ironically, the older I got, the more critical value I saw in those texts and in others like it.

As writers, we can only hope there are more kids like the ones I visited this week because the truth is they hold the future of the book world in their hands.


Rick Blechta said...

Teens can be pretty formidable, even intimidating, when they're fully engaged academically. You would never get questions like you experienced at a library appearance with the general public, probably not even at a mystery convention.

What impresses me is that these kids took your story on a par with anything they would read in class. And we're talking Hemingway, Faulkner, et al. That is a great compliment and let's just hope the exposure to crime writing gives them the yen for more — before they find out it's merely "genre fiction".

Vicki Delany said...

John, I'm teaching a class on writing to a group of seniors this week. I'll look for comparasions with your experience.